Slavery was growing in America in the 1700’s and by 1776, the time of the American Revolution, there were slaves in all 13 colonies. In 1807 a law was passed allowing slaves to be brought to America from abroad. This, along with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 prolonged and preserved slavery. By 1830 abolitionists were protesting that slavery was morally wrong and some slave revolts were simultaneously being organized. In 1857 the Dred Scott Case revealed that slaves were property and could be taken anywhere in the north or south by their owners. In September of 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation proclamation which went into effect in January, 1863. This stated that slaves were to be freed, but actually only acted as a symbol to appease the abolitionists. At the end of the Civil War, the Negro was no longer a slave, yet not a citizen and not prepared for the world, having no skills, money, or property. The period of time bringing order and peace to America is known as Reconstruction. In 1868 the l4th amendment gave the Negro citizenship, and the l5th amendment ratified in 1870 stated his right to vote. Many of these laws were put on the books but continued to be unacceptable and unpracticed by the white population. It was also during this time that Negro schools and colleges such as Howard U., Atlanta U., and Fisk University were established. A Federal Bureau known as the Freedman’s Bureau was supposed to help the Negro, but was actually a facade used by the white man for political purposes, and was eventually closed in 1872. In the Reconstruction period a small number of Negroes were voting citizens, and began to hold certain offices. In the late 1870’s the ‘return to white supremacy’ had begun as an effort by the white population to gain control of the heavy population of blacks in the South. This popular view among whites reinforced the belief that the Negro was an inferior being.
By the turn of the century a few voices were being heard in the black population. In 1908 the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was established by W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois believed that the Negro needed to be treated equally and the organization helped the Negro find jobs, housing and helped reduce prejudice. Simultaneously, by 1910 90 percent of the population lived in the South, only 25% owned land, and about 70% were illiterate. In 1920 membership of the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak with an estimated 5 million members. The KKK was reinforcing the idea of white supremacy. They were an organized group that burned, beaten and threatened and discriminated against minorities, primarily blacks. Also, ‘black laws’ came about denying the Negro the right to vote or testify in court, to name a few things. The Negroes still received lower wages than the whites, were discriminated in housing choice and were segregated from whites in public facilities. Simultaneously, thousands of blacks left the South in search of a better way of life. In 1929, with the collapse of the stock market bringing on the Great Depression, there was a positive note for the black worker. In 1929 Asa Phillip Randolph organized and was the head of the Sleeping Car Porters, which helped the Negroes keep steady jobs on the railroad during the depression. Considering all of these factors, the beginning of the century was not a positive one for the Negro.
In the 1930’s the black population was still in a state of limbo, with each step forward two steps were taken backwards. In the 1930’s the NAACP was fighting discrimination in education, and coordinated a legal campaign against segregation and discrimination, the case for education not ending in a victory. In 1935 the Swing Age began and many black performers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Count Basie were popular. Also in 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women. In 1938 a suit filed by the NAACP for black and white teachers to make the same wages led to a series of suits which reached this goal. In 1937, Joe Louis became the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that states must provide equal education opportunities for Negroes, although this was not actually practiced. In 1939, Jane Matilda Bolin became the first Negro woman judge in the U.S. The decade ended with Benjamin Oliver Davis being appointed the first Negro general in the history of the armed forces.
In the 1940’s the Negroes were still grasping at the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It had not yet become a reality. The New Deal period directed by FDR provided the Negro with equal opportunity to work in government jobs, no longer requiring you to state your race on the employment application. Although this was a step forward, it did not apply to other areas of public employment. This milestone led to protest in 1941 with the beginning of WWII. The Negroes protested being segregated from white troops, yet having white commanding officers. As a result of pressure, Negroes were put in higher positions and eventually accepted to all parts of the armed service in 1945. In 1943, a series of racial riots began in which many blacks were killed with few positive results. In 1944, the United Negro College Fund was incorporated and in 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first Negro accepted into organized baseball. In 1948 Truman integrated the armed forces and segregation ceased in this area. In 1949 WERD, the first Negro radio station was established in Atlanta and in 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. This decade showed more equal opportunities for the black population, but a struggle was still ahead.
The 1950’s began as controversially as they ended. At the same time that the New York City Council passed a bill which prohibited racial discrimination in city housing developments, a South Carolina court ruled that segregation was not discrimination and that this had no ill effects on Negro children. Then, in 1954 in the Brown vs. Topeka case, the Supreme Court declared that segregation in public school was unconstitutional. This case is regarded by many as the beginning of the catalyst for the civil rights movement. In 1955, the first of many protests against discrimination occurred in Montgomery, Alabama, when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the rear of a segregated bus. This event, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and lasting 11 months, was the turning point in the fight for equal rights.
This non-violent protest acted as a model for most of the subsequent civil right activity. Bus boycotts broke out throughout the states as a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to ban segregation in intrastate bus routes. Finally, on December 21, 1956, the Supreme Court’s decision prohibiting segregation on buses went into effect. Simultaneously unbelievably in the same year of Rosa Parks protesting (1955) Emmett Till, 14, was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman in a public store. In 1957, a Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington, the biggest civil rights demonstration took place. As race riots continued throughout the states, Mack Parker was lynched in 1959. That same year, the first black woman to write a broadway play was Lorraine Hansberry. Her
‘Raisin In The Sun’
opened at the Barrymore Theater in March. Although the decade is filled with positive efforts towards equal rights, the regular forces are equally weighed and change for action isn’t taken or gotten until the following decade.
In the 1960’s we see the most action even taken by the Negro population and led by Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent policies. The 1960’s began with sit-ins in white libraries, beaches, and hotels. As a result, many stores, lunch counters and public facilities were desegregated. In 1961, the bus containing the first of the Freedom Riders was bombed and burned in Alabama. Simultaneously, the Commerce Commission issued a regulation prohibiting segregation on buses and in terminal facilities. In 1962, demonstrations continued throughout the country concerning segregation in public facilities and housing. In the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed and although Negro churches were burned in the South, President Kennedy actively denounced this and supported the Negro voter registration drive in the South. On November 22, 1963, JFK, a positive leader for black equal rights, was assassinated. In 1963, the march in Birmingham marked the passing of the Negroes’ fight for civil rights and taking matters into their own hands. In 1964 King, who led the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy in working against discrimination and using passive resistance in his work.
In Selma, Alabama, in 1965 there was protest concerning voter registration which kept Negroes out of the voting population. With the crisis in 1968 many program aiding the poor were drastically cut, effecting the status black had wholeheartedly fought to gain. The idea of Black power promoted by Stokely Carmichael became popular in 1966 because the civil rights legislation and poverty programs were failing to work. Although with this slogan and movement came the conviction of black pride and the wish to control the major institutions affecting the Black community, it also contained questionable overtones suggesting racial segregation, As a result of unchanging race relations many riots took place in hundreds of cities throughout the country in the summers of 1963-1967. One of the first major happenings was in Watts, a Black section of Los Angeles. In Detroit during July of 1967, the bloodiest racial riot in America’s history took the lives of 43 people in 5 days. In April of 1968, King was assassinated and widespread rioting was at its peak. Within a week of King’s death the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed prohibiting discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. However, this act did not include 1/5 of the housing facilities, so discrimination continued to exist in this area. In 1969, although the U.S. Justice Department revealed that rioting was down at least 50% from the previous year, mass racial uprisings continued to occur in Springfield, MA, Hartford, CT, and Jacksonville, FL. Although the 1960’s proved that action by a people working together can produce positive results, Negroes were not yet fully integrated in American society; prejudiced and unpracticed and unwritten laws all being the culprits.
In the 1970’s a swaying dichotomy of Negro status in American society remained prevalent. On the one hand elected black officials doubled from 1964 to 1967 and blacks in better white collar craftsmen position with an approximate increase of 3 to 5 million people from 1960 to 1971. It was in 1971 that the Supreme Court ruled busing as an acceptable method to integrate public schools. On the other hand, statistics from 1982 speak for themselves concerning the milestones that remain to be accomplished for Black Americans. The energies and hopes of the Black Revolution were dying out, unemployment was extremely high and with the Nixon administration came negative policies affecting the poor and supporting forces which opposed segregation. Hence, the economic and social achievements of the 60’s took a plunge downward. At this time (1982), the average Black American earned approximately 1/2 of what America earned with unemployment being twice as high for blacks. One half of the Negro population lived in slum housing and most blacks continued their education in segregated public schools having inferior facilities to white schools. Although the most changes for the Black American occurred from 1962-1972 than in the hundred years since the Reconstruction, Blacks were still underclass citizens. In 1973, the median income for Black families was just 58% of white families’ incomes with the percentage of Black families on welfare increasing. On a positive note there was a 56% increase in Black college enrollment between 1970 and 1974. With the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976 came a glimmer of hope with the recognition of individual Blacks as seen in Carter’s appointment of more Black federal judges than all the other presidents combined. In 1978 3 black astronauts, Gregory, Blinford, and McNair embodied the advancement Negroes had made since the 1st era. In June of that same year Allan P. Bakke was admitted into the University of California Medical School at Davies in a reverse discrimination suit. This ruling put boundaries in the use of affirmative action in previous injustices.
In 1979, the Ku Klux Klan membership was on the rise and simultaneously 200 Black leaders were speaking out and supporting Andrew Young as UN Ambassador, demanding that blacks be heard in American foreign policy affairs. Although Carter renewed the recognition of individual blacks, high inflation and unemployment rates sparked the first major riot since the 60’s, in Miami during the month of May. A series of racial uprisings followed in a number of cities and while the beginning of the 70’s brought improvement in job status for some Negroes, unemployment was rampant throughout the black community. By the mid-70’s, college enrollment was up and so was black recognition. This was countered by race riots in 1980. So, the 70’s was a time of disenchantment for blacks with positive and negative forces in constant fluctuation.
With the 1980’s came the election of President Reagan and his policies disregarding those of the New Deal period. (In the 1930’s FDR promoted social reform and economic recovery.) Reagan supported programs which intensified the economic problems of Black America and widened racial splits. In 1980 a number of racial riots and incidents broke out, and in 1981 over 300,000 people from labor and civil rights organizations protested the Reagan administration’s social policies. Black Americans bitterly felt that although things seemed to have changed fundamentally they remained the same; pacified and oppressed.
This historical background should act as a guideline for your students in their study of the negative and positive forces affecting the American Black community. The contrasting events are expressed in the poetry through feelings which include anger, hope, despair, joy and confusion in self in regards to society. If you wish the students to concentrate more heavily on the historical background the resources I listed in the above pages are excellent for both the teacher and the more advanced student. If you present the historical events as the cause for poets to write and their poetry as their response to these events, than your students will see that the poetry cannot exist without the historical events. The feelings, attitudes and subject matters of the poetry are all provoked by the events of history. This historical account contains both the uppers and the downers for the American Negro throughout both eras. These ups and downs are reflected in the poetry throughout both eras.